The Apostle Paul was a man that had it all figured out. In a world where many are struggling to find meaning and peace, we would do well to listen to this wise and experienced man’s advice. Like the Lord Jesus, Paul “learned obedience from the things which he suffered.” Hebrews 5:8 We cannot dismiss him, by thinking he did not understand how hard life can be. If there’s any doubt of this you might want to remind yourself of his incredible list of life experiences to know he was a victor. 2 Cor. 11:22-31 He knew life from all angles – and perhaps that is why God called him to be the one entrusted with the difficult job of preaching Christianity to the Gentiles – including us. We won’t benefit from ignoring his perspective and encouragement. Today’s readings in Philippians surprised me with the relevance of this man’s advice to our modern society.
I am not the wisest person I’ve ever met.☺ Nor do I claim training in human psychology. I believe I have learned a great deal, however, from two sources. The first is the Word of the very Being that created us – and therefore can help us sort out who we are, and how we fit in this often-confusing world and life. The second is that I have become a student of human interaction. I am intrigued and interested in noting and contemplating the things that make people do what they do, think what they think, and be what they are.
These two sources of input dovetail, and have helped me to observe that people can get stumped, and often stunted, by one of two stumbling blocks. The first is their own past or current wrong behavior (sin) that haunts them (consciously or not). And the second is the wrong behavior perpetrated upon them by others. If either or both of these areas are not fully acknowledged, faced, addressed and forgiven – I have observed that peoples’ lives are often laden with baggage shackled to them like leg irons with lost keys. In other words, stuck in a broken place – sort of like trying to run the marathon of life with two broken legs. I am not claiming it is easy to rid oneself of these two things, nor that I am altogether free of them myself. But I hope I’m humble enough to continue to seek answers. And I see good advice in Paul’s words today, that can help me pursue that unshackled course of freedom and peace.
Philippians 3 begins with Paul issuing a “safeguarding” warning to believers to make it clear that they would have plenty of enemies. v.1 He knew his own enemies personally – internal and external – some strangers, others probably by name. And he knew that the Christians of Philippi would have similar people in their lives. People out to hurt them physically, emotionally and/or spiritually because of their beliefs and resultant lifestyle. Paul calls these enemies “dogs”, “evil workers” and those of false religious conviction. v.2 He had literal scars on his body, and also suffered much psychological anguish at the hands of these types of people. So he is reminding the Philippians that they must not let these people threaten or stop their growth and maturity in Christ.
Then Paul goes on to describe his own past experience with “putting confidence in the flesh”. vv.4-8 He unabashedly recounts his own wrong-spirited and misguided zeal in harming other people. He identifies his fleshly pride and the guilt of that terrible season of his life. His sins are laid down in black and white for all to see. He does this without shame, only because he speaks from the place of the humility of repentance and of embracing God’s forgiveness – as well out of love in an attempt to help others.
But the crux of his message is that he did not stop at these miserable junctures of his life. He did not let abuse by others, or his own stupidity break him. He conquered the fears and insecurities presented by these trials – ones that could have entangled him for the rest of his life. Rather, he viewed these things as “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, being conformed to Christ’s death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.” vv.10-11 He saw his life experiences as joining a great body of faithful people. People described throughout the Bible. People that suffered in life – from their own sins and the sins of others – but persevered in spite of those things in order to grow into the person that could “gain Christ”. v.8 He is speaking passionately of the pursuit of gaining Christ’s favor and fellowship – whatever the cost.
And so, the message becomes one we all need to hear, often.
- Forget what lies behind. v.13 (make peace with the past through confession and repentance of our own sins and/or through forgiveness of those who have wronged us whether they deserve it or not)
- Reach forward to what lies ahead v.13 (have hope – abundant life both now and in His Kingdom is God’s desire for us if we continue to reach for it)
- Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus v.14 (be persistent to strain and pursue obedience to God – without relenting – the reward is real for those who do not give up)
These are not trite admonitions without teeth to them. He tells us to live this way. He assures us God will help us by revealing anything less than this positive, hopeful, resilient outlook to us (thus reminding us to keep pressing on). vv.15-16 He tells us to look for examples of other people who live this way and walk with them, learn from them. v.17
He also gives some pedal-to-the-metal advice on how to maintain such a life attitude in Chapter 4. How do we get unshackled and stay that way?:
- Stand firm in the Lord. v.1
- Be joyful. v.4
- Be fair and gentle. v.5
- Don’t worry. v.6
- Pray – a lot. v.6
- Be thankful. v.6
- Fill your mind with good stuff and only good stuff. v.8
If we do this we are promised we can face any and all of the varied past and future forms of troubling “demons” that come into our lives – and have peace. Lasting peace. Like Paul did with his past and with his never-ending parade of enemies.
This is definitely not the cushy course. This life race is a grueling marathon – not a sprint. But Paul ends his advice with the second biggest key to unlocking shackles (after the humility he has already advised.) He says we must: PRACTICE THESE THINGS! v.9 This word “practice” means; to perform repeatedly or habitually. It implies deep commitment to a goal. We must exercise the above list until it is habit, second-nature, who we are becoming rather than who we have been. Not easy, surely. But fortunately it’s not dependent on our often-wavering, often-doubting strength alone. And that’s the best part of all!
From his own life wisdom Paul advises:
Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus…and the God of peace will be with you…and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…
We respond with our own lifesong:
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me!!!!
One of my favorite songs by Casting Crowns fits this topic very well. Enjoy this peaceful video as you listen to the moving words of; “And Now My Lifesong Sings”: